A familiar face ruined Mike D’Antoni’s return to Phoenix last month. That same player has a lot to prove when he meets his former coach for the second time.
D’Antoni was hired by the Suns during the 2003-04 season and went 253-136 in four-plus seasons, but he never led them to the NBA finals. After losing in the first round to San Antonio last spring, D’Antoni was given permission to pursue other openings and eventually released from the final two years of his contract.
The Knicks then hired D’Antoni in May to pick up the pieces after Isiah Thomas’ failed stint as coach and general manager.
He returned to Phoenix on Dec. 15 and was done in by Nash, whose career flourished under D’Antoni. Nash scored 21 points, including a game-clinching 3-pointer with 28 seconds to play, as Phoenix came away with a 111-103 victory.
“He put the dagger in us at the end,” D’Antoni said, “but I’ve seen that a thousand times. I knew it was going to happen. It didn’t surprise me.”
Nash and the Suns’ play on Monday, though, was a bit surprising.
Phoenix (23-16), in the midst of a season-high six-game road trip, fell behind by 30 points en route to a 104-87 loss to defending NBA champion Boston. Nash came close to his season averages with 12 points and eight assists, but his counterpart, Rajon Rondo, had 23 points and seven assists before sitting out the fourth quarter with the rest of the Celtics starters.
“They put on a clinic for us tonight,” Nash said.
Nash and the Suns have struggled over the past week, losing three of four following a 6-1 stretch. On Monday, Phoenix matched its worst defeat of the season after also losing by 17 at Chicago on Nov. 7.
“It was a good ol’ spanking. That’s what is was,” coach Terry Porter said. “They came out and turned on the intensity on us early and we didn’t respond. They got whatever they wanted. There was no resistance from us whatsoever.”
New York (16-24) had a much better outcome Monday, defeating the Bulls 102-98 to avoid a third straight loss.
Point guard Chris Duhon, playing through back spasms, drove against two defenders for the go-ahead basket with 31.2 seconds left and scored 19 points to help lift the Knicks to their third win in four games at Madison Square Garden.
“I’m hurting real bad,” Duhon said, “but my main thing was us to go get a win, and that’s what we came out and did.”
Like Nash, Duhon has flourished in D’Antoni’s offense, averaging 12.3 points and 8.0 assists - tied for sixth-most in the NBA. He entered 2008-09 with career averages of 6.9 points and 4.5 assists after spending his first four seasons with Chicago.
“He gutted it out, which I expected him to do,” D’Antoni told the Knicks’ official Web site. “It does cause some anxiety on our side, but he’s competitive all the way through.”
New York has lost two straight and three of its last four at home to Phoenix, which has one of the better road records in the league at 11-8.